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Personal profile


BSc Natural Sciences (University of Milan)

MSc Palaeobiology and History of Life (University of Milan)

MPhil Biological Anthropological Sciences (University of Cambridge)

PhD Biological Anthropology (University of Kent)

Research interests

My main research interest concerns the origin of modern human variation: how it relates to past population history - from the origin of our species to more recent migrations of people - and to selective pressures due to the colonisation of different environments. I apply a population genetic approach to the study of skeletal morphology, looking at the shape of the cranium and the postcranium in different human populations to gain a better understanding of the processes that generated modern geographic variability.

My recent research has mostly focused on two areas of the human skeleton, the cranium and the pelvis (hips). Both of these anatomical regions underwent substantial evolutionary changes in the hominin lineage, and are related to some key human adaptations such as increased encephalisation and bipedalism. At the same time, both regions appear to vary remarkably between modern human populations. One explanation for this geographical variation is climatic adaptation, and several authors have suggested a link between the size and shape of the skull and pelvis and regional temperature.

My work, on the contrary, has revealed that the geographic pattern in human cranial and pelvic variation can be largely explained by the history of dispersal of our species, whereby morphological differences have accumulated in the populations that colonised new areas of the world. Climatic adaptation appears to have played a more limited role in directly shaping modern human skeletal diversity. Climate itself, on the other hand, was a major factor in determining the mode and tempo of human geographic dispersal, and therefore human demographic history (Eriksson et al. 2012; Betti et al. 2020).

My recent work (Betti and Manica 2018) has showed the remarkable extent of variation in the birth canal in our species, and the powerful effects of neutral processes in shaping such a key region of our skeleton, a region that had previously been suggested to be under strong evolutionary constraints related to childbirth and bipedal locomotion (obstetrical dilemma hypothesis). Women have long been under-studied in anthropology and medicine, and it is remarkable how little we knew about women’s variability in the shape of the birth canal. My study showed very clearly that women of different geographic ancestry tend to have differently shaped pelvic canals, potentially leading to differences in childbirth. The study raises the question of whether the current European-based model of the birth canal and childbirth, used in obstetric training and practice around the world, is representative of women’s variation and serves well women of all ancestries (Betti 2021).

I am also involved in a large ERC project run by Dr Jay Stock at the University of Cambridge (http://www.adaptproject.eu/), which is looking at the global pattern of hunter-gatherer skeletal variation in a more integrated way, evaluating the relative importance of neutral genetic differences and climatic variation in shaping the skeleton.

For the last few years, I have been studying and curating a collection of late Anglo-Saxon skeletons unearthed in Godalming, Surrey in 2014-15. The cemetery was abandoned quite suddenly when the construction of a new road separated it from the nearby church, and was left untouched for about 1,000 years. It is one of the most remarkable and informative cemetery of this period in Britain, and several projects (from isotope studies of diet and migration to aDNA analysis of kinship) are under way to investigate lifestyle, health and migration in late Saxon Godalming. I am the curator of the Godalming Priory Orchard collection at the University of Roehampton.


Human ecology, human diversity, human evolution, statistics



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